This novel is a precisely drawn satire of life in an English village in the early 20th century. Mrs. Ames has been the leader of society in Riseborough for many years, due partly to her commanding presence and partly to her distant familial connection with a nobleman. The other residents of Riseborough both admire and resent her for her position, and many of the local gossips would be glad to see her fail in some way. So when a (relatively speaking) new arrival, Mrs. Evans, begins to set herself up as Mrs. Ames’ social rival, the entire town waits with bated breath to see whether their queen will be dethroned. Meanwhile, both Mrs. Ames and Mrs. Evans dimly begin to realize that their lives are unfulfilling, but their search for deeper meaning takes them down drastically different paths, one of which may lead to scandal and heartbreak.
I expected this book to be nothing more than a light, witty comedy of manners — which it is, but it also took a more serious turn than I anticipated. The various social machinations of the ladies of Riseborough are very funny; there’s a particularly wonderful scene in which Mrs. Evans hosts a masquerade ball and several ladies (tragically, yet hilariously) show up wearing the same costume. But for me, the more compelling story was Mrs. Ames’ slow realization that her dreary, respectable life isn’t making her happy. It’s only when she begins to identify with a cause greater than herself that she actually finds contentment — even at the moment when all her respectability and social standing is taken away. So oddly enough, this comedy of manners turns into a coming-of-age story, and I found it a surprisingly thought-provoking read.